Biographies

Fatima al-Fihri Founder of the Qarawiyyin

Fatima bint Muhammad al-Fihri (Umm al-Banin)

Brief Biography:

Born c. 800 – died 266/880 – established the Qrawiyyin Mosque – empowerment, sacrifice and piety

Fatima (given the agnomen ‘Mother of the Children’) was born in Tunisia into an extremely wealthy family (some claim royalty) that had high piety and social nobility. Her father Muhammad b. `Abd Allah al-Fihri al-Qayrawani was a successful businessman in the Tunisian city of Karaouine (qayrawan) who then migrated west to Morocco in order to expand the family fortunes. Fatima had only one sister and no brothers. Fatima and her sister Maryam (umm al-qasim) were young, pious well-educated and individual personalities in their own right nurturing extreme love for the Islamic religious sciences and architecture.

Having travelled with their father and settled in the western district of Fes city, Fatima and Maryam each pursued their desire for community betterment in their location and when Fatima’s father passed away as well her husband later on, she and her sister were both bequeathed with a fortune and both then began to realise their desire to patronise the Islamic arts, architecture and religious learning. Maryam al-Fihri went on to sponsor the construction of the al-Andalus Mosque while Fatima began the construction of the great Qarawiyyin Mosque.

Achievements:

In 245/859, the Qarawiyyin Mosque in the North-western city of Fes in Morocco was established; a structure built from the exclusive property endowment (waqf) of Fatima al-Fihri. It is said that Fatima would be in continuous fast upon launch of the project in 857 to build the Mosque until it was finally completed two years later. She also performed two unit of supererogatory Prayer of gratitude (salat al-shukr) for the bounty and favours Allah had given her and for allowing it to be spent for realising a charitable end.

The Qarawiyyin Mosque became the religious heartbeat of Fes and its centrality was always reinforced by the then official Marinid (wilayat bani marin) policy of building Islamic colleges or ‘schools’ (madrasa) around it attracting intelligent and devoted individuals from northern Morocco and elsewhere in the Muslim world (and Europe) to study theology and Islamic Law (fiqh) in order to later assume state administrative positions and educational posts. This transformed it into a university as we commonly understand them to be today and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the oldest degree-granting university in the world.

            The Qarawiyyin since its foundation became an institution that was pivotal in the western axis of Islamic Caliphal lands. Not only was it a centre of religious worship and study, it was also a hub for political and social interactions. Moreover, from the 4th/10th – 8th/14th century under various ruling patronages, the Qarawiyyin was a corridor for Islam and European cultural convergence of trade and education. Thus as an example, the famous Muslim cartographer Muhammad al-Idris (Latin: Dreses; d. 1166) and his maps were used by European explorers during the Renaissance period in order to navigate into new territories. He lived in Fes and most likely even studied at the Qarawiyyin.

Another example is that of Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406) who was the pioneer of medieval sociological studies and whose philosophy of history, views and theories of society and anthropology is considered to be one of the most profound contributions to later 17th, 18th and 19th century western studies in the field. He lived and studied in Fes composing a number of other significant works in logic and philosophy at that time.

Reflections:

Although very little information exists about Fatima al-Fihri (may Allah have mercy on her), we can reflect on her achievements and make some observations. Immediate observations include:

  • Fatima al-Fihri being female.
  • Fatima al-Fihri being highly wealthy.
  • Fatima al-Fihri being extremely pious.
  • Fatima al-Fihri being extremely charitable.
  • Will be rewarded until the end of time for her work.

 However, other deeper observations can be made:

[1] In our time where women – especially young girls – are given a vision of themselves and their worth that does not go beyond the horizon of emphasising physical looks (e.g. orange tans, thin body sizes, designer label clothes, etc.) and complete pursuit of personal pleasure, (e.g. drinking, partying, anti-social behaviour, etc.), Fatima al-Fihri in her broader vision of educational betterment for her community and her selflessness in putting the her community and its priorities before her own with a long-term goal is exemplary to say the least. She realised the importance of having real religious centres of both devotion and learning in order to preserve Islamic knowledge and practice and develop local peoples intellectually. In order to achieve this she willingly donated her inheritance wealth.

[2] There is the common misconception that Muslim women have made no substantial contribution to their own Islamic civilisation being in major part sidelined and confined to the domestic sphere by patriarchal pressures and their Islamic dress code. In Fatima al-Fihri is a wonderful example that thoroughly undermines all this. This example shows that in the early history of Islam, women were their own individual agents with the permission to buy sell, trade, engage in commercial ventures and contribute culturally without hindrance. This should be a source of pride in Islamic values and society based on correctly applied Islamic teachings. Muslim women should feel immensely empowered at emboldened by this and strive to recreate this reality.

[3] Lessons from Fatima al-Fihri’s life should prompt Muslims into internalising it for their own contexts. It should awaken in Muslims – especially Muslim women – the realisation that one’s purpose in life should not be reduced to personal and material success (car, career and companionship) but broader action of change to make society and indeed the world a better place to live in; a place that nurtured the mature, religious, intellectual and moral outlook of Fatima al-Fihri, a world under the shade of Islam and the sacred laws of the Shari`ah.

{By no means shall you attain piety or righteousness unless you spend [in Allah’s cause] of that which you love} [Q. 3:92].

Sayyiduna Abu Hurayrah (ra) said: “The good deeds that will reach a believer after his death are: [1] knowledge which he learned and then spread; [2] a righteous son whom he leaves behind; [3] a copy of the Qur’an that he leaves as a legacy; [4] a mosque that he built; [5] a house that he built for wayfarers; [6] a canal that he dug; [7] or charity that he gave during his lifetime when he was in good health. These deeds will reach him after his death.” (Ibn Majah, Sunan [#242] and al-Mundhuri, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib, 1:78).

إن مما يلحق المؤمن من عمله وحسناته بعد موته علما علمه ونشره وولدا صالحا تركه أو مصحفا ورثه أو مسجدا بناه أو بيتا لابن السبيل بناه أو نهرا أجراه أو صدقة أخرجها من ماله في صحته وحياته تلحقه من بعد موته.

S. Z. C.

And with Allah is all success

 

References:

R. Saoud, “al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University”, Muslim Heritage, accessed April 2011, http://muslimheritage.com/topics/default.cfm?ArticleID=447

M. Shatzmiller, “Maranids”, in EI2, ed. by C. E. Bosworth et al, vol.6, pp.571-574.

W. Khan, “Meet Fatima al-Fihri – An Inspiration”, Khilafah.Com, April 20 2011, http://www.khilafah.com/index.php/comment/10275-meet-fatima-al-fihri-an-inspiration

“University of Karaouine”, Wikipedia, accessed April 2011, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Al-Karaouine

H. Abdul Rashid, “Fatima al-Fihri – Founder of the Oldest University in the World”, The Urban Muslim Woman, April 20 2011, http://theurbanmuslimwomen.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/fatima-al-fihri-founder-of-the-oldest-university-in-the-world/

3 thoughts on “Fatima al-Fihri Founder of the Qarawiyyin

  1. Pingback: The Legacy That We Are Denied | The Ramblings of a Lunatic

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